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World Golf Ranking formula defies common sense

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You may believe Luke Donald is ill-suited to be the No. 1-ranked golfer in the world. You may think such honors should be reserved for a major championship winner or the most talented player according to the ol' eyeball test.

You may even be firmly ensconced in the camp which contends that after back-to-back finishes outside the top 30, Donald no longer deserves to be called No. 1 – despite the fact that his last result prior to the past two weeks was a victory at the Transitions Championship.

You can’t, however, convince me that the following development makes any semblance of sense.

Donald finished T-37 at the RBC Heritage on Sunday, in the process losing his No. 1 spot on the Official World Golf Ranking to Rory McIlroy – a guy who spent the past week enjoying some well deserved time off.

The truth is, Donald could have finished as high as ninth at Harbour Town and still been ousted by a player whose two main accomplishments this week were reaching 1 million Twitter followers and relaxing with his tennis-playing girlfriend.


Idle McIlroy takes top spot back from Donald


Speaking of which: They say it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, but when it comes to golf’s rankings formula, abstention is often the best policy.

Does this happen in other professions? Can the world’s top-ranked surgeon perform several lengthy procedures, only to lose his title to a guy sunning himself in Cabo? Can the No. 1 plumber spend the week knee-deep in unclogged toilets, then get surpassed by a vacationing peer who left his plunger at the office?

We’ve been spoiled by the serendipity surrounding the No. 1 ranking’s revolving door over the past 14 months. When Martin Kaymer first reached the top spot, it was because he reached the final of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship. When Donald initially got there, it was due to his playoff triumph over previous No. 1 Lee Westwood at the BMW PGA Championship. When McIlroy got the call, it came directly based on his Honda Classic victory.

Each of those momentous occasions masked an underlying problem within the infrastructure of the OWGR’s formula: There is no accounting for common sense.

Perhaps both the best and worst thing about the OWGR is that it's all based on mathematics. If you've got a problem with where somebody is ranked, you can't scream at a biased voter, but rather must take issue at what can only be imagined as a large supercomputer that's constantly spitting out new calculations.

Of course, nowhere in that formula is there a factor for the voice of reason, which should state some pretense of the following: If Player A competes – and especially if Player A competes pretty successfully – then he shouldn’t be passed on the list by Player B if Player B spent the same time drinking mojitos poolside at some exclusive resort.

This scenario is magnified when the No. 1 spot is involved, but it’s hardly unique to that lone place on the list. Every single week, players are passed by others with no apparent rhyme or reason, other than the calculation favors somebody else. Just recently, Bubba Watson publicly questioned how a share of fourth place at the Arnold Palmer Invitational dropped him from 16th in the world to 18th.

How does this happen? It’s all about divisors. In the case of McIlroy passing Donald, young Rory’s divisor dropped from 50 events during the rolling two-year calendar to 49, though his total number of points largely remained intact, meaning his average points – the final number used to determine world ranking status – actually increased not despite his week off from work, but because of it.

Consider it a glitch in a system that many are quick to condemn without fully understanding. Much like its distant cousin, college football’s Bowl Championship Series, the OWGR is often deemed a failure not for the high percentage of rankings that the calculations get correct, but the low number of them that are glaring and egregious errors.

In both cases, the underlying root for such issues is the lack of a common-sense divisor, some type of corollary that would override the formula when its math obviously isn’t thinking clearly.

If that had been in place this week, someone would have been able to push the big red “stop the presses” button before the OWGR was released, in effect keeping the status quo atop the ordering because it made sense, even if the numbers said otherwise.

It’s perfectly fine if you believe Luke Donald doesn’t deserve to be the world’s No. 1-ranked player. Likewise, it’s absolutely acceptable to think that Rory McIlroy should be in that place instead.

Neither conclusion, though, would have been reached based on this week’s results. Alas, there is no scenario in which a share of 37th place at a PGA Tour event should trump seven days of R&R, despite what the numbers contend.